Stone Survey Photographer Steps

If you have or would like to volunteer to help us create our digital archive of gravestones, this information is for you. Heck, if you take photos of gravestones anywhere for any purpose, you might find some great tips as well. The photography project is a phase of the Stone Survey.

  1. Let Us Know
  2. Sign a Photo Release
  3. Receive Your Assignment
  4. Gather Your Supplies
  5. Go to the Eastern Cemetery and Find Your Stones
  6. Take Photos of Your Assigned Stones
  7. Save and Rename Image Files
  8. Move the Files to Spirits Alive

1. Let Us Know

Please send an email to us and let us know you'd like to start taking photos as part of the project.

2. Sign a Photo Release

The photo release allows us to use the photos in whatever way we need to use them in the future. They are still your photos, and you have the right to do with them as you please. Please fill out the release and mail it to us, or scan and email it to us.

Download the Photo Release (57k PDF)

3. Receive Your Assignment

We will send you an email with:

4. Gather Your Supplies

Everyone will have a different set of supplies, but this is a basic list to get you started:

Download the Checklist for Stones (20k PDF)

5. Go to the Eastern Cemetery and Find Your Stones

The Congress Street gates should be open from Memorial Day to Labor Day at around 8am to about 5pm daily by the city park rangers. If you find that isn't the case, Carlson and Turner Books across the street has a key.

Priorities for Working in the Cemetery

  1. Be respectful. Although we are researchers, we are in a sacred burial ground and want others who happen to see what we are doing to know that we remember it’s a sacred place.
  2. Do no harm. If anything, we should leave the area in better shape than when we arrived.
  3. Represent Spirits Alive. We work hard to help others understand the cemetery and let them know that someone is caring for it. You may get a lot of questions from visitors. Please take the time to politely explain you are working with Spirits Alive, and direct them to our email or website if they have questions. We are sanctioned by the city of Portland who owns the property to work in the cemetery.

Find your assigned stones using the clues on your stone list and the map that was emailed to you for help.

6. Take Photos of Your Assigned Stones

When you're done with a stone, you'll have a series of images depending on the type. Use the Field Checklist or your own notes to keep track of what you’ve taken. Detail photos are not required but are encouraged if the stone has an interesting epitaph, art carving or damage. Context photos are required for each stone.

Photo Angles Required by Stone Type
Stone Type Context Front Back Sides Top Detail
Head Yes Yes Yes Yes - 1    
Foot Yes Yes Yes Yes - 1    
Flat, Ledger, Fallen, Nub Yes       Yes  
Monument Yes     Yes - North, South, East, West    
Box Yes     Yes - North, South, East, West Yes  

Just because a particular angle is not required doesn't mean you can't take the photo. Take as many photos as you would like. Too many images is better than not enough.

Photographing Context

This is a view of the front of the stone with surrounding stones to get an idea of where it is in relation to the area around it. This is required for every stone. Sometimes you can also get the plot marker or plot posts in the photo which is great.

head context

Example of headstone context photo. Note how you can see the stones, or lack thereof, behind it and to the side.
This image would be named b0102headcontext.jpg

foot context

Example of footstone context photo. Note how you can see the headstone behind it. It would have been even better to see the stones or lack thereof on either side.
This image would be named b0102footcontext.jpg

Photographing Front and Back

Fill the frame with the entire stone. If you take a front image, you should have a back image as well.

front and back of headstone

Example of headstone front and back. Notice how the headstone is taking up as much of the view as possible, and no edges have been cut off. The photo of the back could have been taken closer.
These images would be named b0102headfront.jpg and b0102headback.jpg

front and back of footstone

Now look at the front and back of this footstone. Notice how the lighting on one side of the stone is so much better than the other! That's just how it is unless you go in the morning and do all the fronts and then come back in the afternoon to do all the backs. We don't expect anyone to do that.
These images would be named b0102footfront.jpg and b0102footback.jpg

Photographing Sides

At about a 45-degree angle from the front, photos of the side document the condition as well. If the stone is carved on the sides, you will have more than one. It doesn't matter if you're taking it from the left or the right. If there is damage, you'll want to take that side.


This example shows the side of the headstone as well as an angle of the front of the stone.
This image would be named b0102headside.jpg

4 sides of a monument

Example: a monument should have photos of each of 4 sides like this.
These images would be named a0410monumentnorth.jpg, a0410monumentsouth.jpg, a0410monumenteast.jpg, a0410monumentwest.jpg

Photographing Tops

Only for stones that have carving on top, stones that have fallen, flat, and ledgers.

top of a fallen stone

This headstone has fallen, so there will be no front, back and side photos. There will only be context and top.
This image would be named a0705headtop.jpg

Photographing Details

These bonus pictures are not required. If you like the art on a stone, the inscription, or notice damage, you may want to submit a detail. You may like the carving and submit that as well. If you do want to take detail photos, try to get as close up as you can without blurring the image.

detail of inscription and artwork

If you think it would be nice to have the inscription documented, please do! It's always a help to be able to actually read the text on a stone and to document its wear. If you like the carving or art, it's nice to show that, too.
These images would be named b0102headdetail01.jpg and f124headdetail01.jpg

Camera Settings

Depending on your camera, the settings are set in different ways. You want to make sure you have the highest resolution set to be on the safe side. You do not need a fancy camera — remember that these photos are being taken for a record only — not for art’s sake. The images will be quite large, so expect several megabytes. Consult your owner's manual to make sure you're getting the best quality images.

Basic Stone Photography Tips

There are many resources online to help you with stone photography, and we believe we have pulled the best of them here as they relate to our project. Remember – the photography we are doing is for a record. World-class contest-winning photography is not requested or necessary, so don’t try to emulate Ansel Adams or Daniel Farber.

Rule of thumb: If you can read the stone in person, it would be nice to be able to make out the letters in the photograph.


The hardest thing about taking photos of gravestones is knowing the light conditions. Photographs of gravestones are best made in bright sunlight (unless you’re under tree shadows).

The sunlight should fall across from the side or top of the stone at an angle of about 30 degrees. If the sun lights the face of the stone squarely from the front instead of at an angle, the details of the stone's carving will not be clearly delineated. The lighting should cast some shadows, and hopefully bring out hidden details. Most of our stones face westerly, so the afternoon is best.


Sometimes you just can’t be in the cemetery at the right time of day, or the sun changes as you are there for long periods of time. This is when reflectors come in handy! Reflectors change the angle of the light when it isn’t optimal. They also work well when you have good light on the front of the stone, but not the back. Reflector types include:

With any of these methods, be aware that if the surface of the reflector is not smooth, it could cause unwanted patterns on the stone.

reading a stone using a mirror

Using a mirror can often help you read a stone that is not being hit with optimal sunlight by reflecting the source of light. For our purposes, this mirror would not be large enough as you can see where it is shining on the stone. It's too small to make a proper photo.

Using a Flash

It's ok to use a flash, but not usually the best solution. Stones are reflective. If you use the flash or shoot directly into the sun, you could get glare spots or (especially on white stones) the flash can wipe out all of the writing on the stone. There's a great illustration of this on this wonderful resource: Guide to Photographing Headstones.

Trimming Grass

It is a good idea to take along some clippers or scissors for cutting grass or brush that might obscure the stone. Be careful not to scratch or damage the stone! Only clip if simply pressing the grass down doesn't work.

Most of the stones in the EC do not to be cleaned for photography purposes, but sometimes there's splashback of dirt after a rain, or grass clippings stuck on from a recent mowing. Use a very soft brush (like a paintbrush or a shaving brush) to take this off.

Wetting a Stone

A trick for getting lettering to stand out is to use a small plant sprayer to finely cover the stone with water. As the water dries off the text, carved areas will remain wet the longest. With luck, the letters will show more clearly as there will be a contrast between the wet and dry surfaces.

These are the only tips and tricks we advocate for reading and photographing gravestones. In the end we ask that you refrain from touching the stones as much as possible. Most of them are 100-200 years old, and many are not in good condition.

7. Save and Rename Image Files

The process is dependent on your camera and computer, but you should move the image files from your camera to your hard drive. Once they are moved, start to rename them.

It’s safest to copy files to your computer so you have them on your camera in case something goes wrong. Once they are saved on your computer, you could delete them from the camera.

How to Rename Image Files

All images should be renamed according to what they are. We use this convention so that the stones will match up to the data in the database. This way we can also tell which stone is in the photo without opening the file.

Stone ID + Stone Type + Angle + Number = b0102headcontext01

Here is an example of how stones are named for one particular person:

Image Names for Jeremiah Downer: Section B, Row 1, Plot 2
Angle Stone Type Name
Detail 1head: inscriptionb0102headdetail01.jpg
Detail 2head: urn and willow artb0102headdetail02.jpg

How to Rename a Photo without Opening It

8. Move the Files to Spirits Alive

We are using Google Drive to hold the photo repository. When we receive a signed photo release from you, we will email your first assignment along with the link to your folder on the repository. This is where you will transfer your photos.

  1. Using the link sent to you with your assignment, go to Google Drive
  2. Sign in. If you haven't created an account, you'll need to do so.
  3. Once you have signed in, click the blue button, "Open in Drive."
  4. Click the button with the red upload with the up-arrow icon in it next to the red "Create" button.
  5. Choose "Files."
  6. Browse to where the image files are located on your computer.
  7. Select the files you want to move.
  8. Click "Open."
  9. When prompted, click the blue "Upload and share" button.
  10. Once the file transfer, or upload, is complete, you may log out and close the window.
  11. Email us and let us know:
    1. That you have uploaded your files
    2. That you would or would not like another assignment
    3. If you had any trouble: couldn't find stones, forgot to take some shots, couldn't get some shots, found extra stones that weren't on your list, etc.
    4. Any suggestions or comments about the process

We will move the files from your folder into our archive. If you choose another assignment, we'll email you a new one and the process starts anew!

We would be so grateful and thankful for any help with this project. There are thousands of markers on site, and we've only got a couple of hundred done.